Penguin Books For Cooks

Penguin Books the plain kitchen

As promised a few months ago, part of The Plain Kitchen’s posts will also focus on my collection of cookery books, recipe leaflets and pamphlets, and also on all things food ephemera related. I am kicking things off by examining two Penguin paperbacks- in fact, one of them I do own (The Penguin Cookery Book) but the other I sadly don’t have in my collection. I do however have the box set collection of 100 Cookery Postcards from Penguin, a gift from a friend which brings me great joy. I know they are meant to be postcards, but quite frankly I cant bear to scribble all over them and hand them over to Royal Mail, so they have formed the basis for my research into the collection of books- and an exciting little project it has been. The weekly #penguinbooksforcooks post will occur every Monday, and I’ll post updates on Instagram (@justine_wall) too, so you don’t miss them. I hope you enjoy these little forays into our culinary literary past as much as I have enjoyed researching the books. If you’re an Instagram user, why not post your images and Penguin books under the hashtag too? It would be great to see what everyone around the world has in their collections!

American Dishes for English Tables, Ambrose Heath

Of course, you will be familiar with Heath- if not for his food writing, then for the Ravilious and Bawden illustrations and covers which adorn most of his books. If I could amass the entire Ambrose Heath collection I’d be a very happy woman indeed: I adore Heath’s writing, more for his tone and no nonsense approach than anything else. In Open Sesame, 1979, he wrote “The super-snob is the gastronomic snob. One of his greatest affections is to despise tinned food”, and of course, Heath is right. A good tin of tuna is possibly one of modern life’s greatest inventions, sardines are even better, and tinned artichokes, as I have mentioned before, are far superior to those nasty rancid oiled ones in jars sold for an astronomic mark-up, and don’t even get me started on the wonders of tinned tomatoes. My grocery cupboard always has a large selection of tins in it, from the pedestrian to the rather peculiar- and I am very wary of any cook who feigns great distaste at the use of tins. I believe these sorts of people to be attempting to be something they are not: that, or they are just telling great big fibs.

Back to Heath: this particular little Penguin was published in 1939 and illustrated by James Arnold. Heath was a prolific food writer: particularly in the 1930s and during the Second World War He always championed “good food”- and British ingredients, but despaired that many British households had forgotten proper cooking skills. During the war years, Heath advised the population on how to make generally inadequate food supplies meet demands. Even though Heath played a huge advisory part in the wartime years, he actually isn’t that well remembered or as revered as he should have been. His work spans so much: he was a journalist, and wrote and translated over 100 works on food, including The Good Cook in Wartime, The Country Life Cookery Book, and, of course, Good Dishes From Tinned Foods.

James Arnold, unlike Ravilious and Bawden, did not enjoy great fame. He illustrated posters for London Transport (1950) and had his The Farm Wagons of England and Wales published in 1969: beautiful, bucolic interpretations of England’s green and pleasant land. I love the cover of American Dishes for English Tables, and this is what attracted me to this particular Penguin from the postcard collection: I love the Pop-Art aspect of it, even though of course it was designed way, way before the Pop Art movement. I love the hand drawn immediacy of the flag- the non-uniform stars in particular. And, I love the central title: the linked parentheses, which almost double up as slight comic-book speech bubbles, and remind me, in turn, of my beloved Roy Rogers Annuals. I am sure James Arnold did not think of this at all when he designed the cover- I am notorious for looking too deeply into things, but it’s how I like to think of it.

I don’t have this one in my collection: I know there are some out there, but I like to “come across” books, as it gives me great pleasure to do so. Sometimes, of course, I will buy online from Abebooks or Ebay, but rather infrequently it must be said. A charity shop find, or a gift from a friend always holds far greater meaning for me.

The Penguin Cookery Book, Bee Nilson

The Penguin Cookery Book Bee Nilson

Now, this is one I do have in my collection: given to me by our dear friends the Carpenters. It was first published in 1952, and my edition is the 1954 edition. Bee Nilson writes, “This is a general cookery book designed for the busy woman who wants to serve good food, but who has only a limited time to spend in the kitchen”. The word “housewife” is, of course, also used in the introduction, as it was in most cookbooks of this time.

Bee Nilson was born and educated in New Zealand, came to England in 1935 and settled in London. During the war she was with the Ministry of Food and compiled their ABC of Cookery. She felt that her interest in the good food of other countries was due to her husband who travelled throughout Europe on business, and collected many of the foreign recipes and ideas in her book.

Of course, many of the recipes in the book are simply ideas: for Beetroot and Mint Salad, Nilson writes, “Make individual nests of lettuce leaves or line a salad bowl with them. In the centre, arrange thin slices of beetroot. Sprinkle with finely chopped mint and serve with French Dressing”. Other recipes are more traditional in length and layout. Nilson, like Heath, was a great admirer of the tin: lots of canned herring, pilchards, oysters and mussels appear in her recipes, which provide such nostalgia for me. As a young girl, I ate a great deal of fresh seafood, particularly octopus and mussels, but it was always the tinned smoked mussels which held my fancy: I loved the ring pull on the tin, the amber oil in which the mussels lay, and of course, the overpowering smokiness of the little morsels. We would eat them from the tin with a toothpick, and, like most delicacies, they were rationed in our house, so I was always left wanting more. Nilson’s little entries remind me of those childhood days in South Africa. How lovely that a little book can stir up such wonderful memories!

Towards the end of the book, in “Planning and Preparing Meals”, Nilson lists food groups, and, as I am sitting here at my desk shivering, hot water bottle on my lap, I have had a little giggle: under “Foods For Warmth and Energy”, she writes: “These are all the fats and oils, the sugars and sweets, bread, flour, cakes and biscuits, oatmeal, rice, semolina and breakfast cereals.” Sounds just perfect!

The Plain Kitchen

The illustrations are thin on the ground, but beautiful: in later editions, the cover included photographs, and I of course prefer the original, although I do not know who illustrated it- and I can’t seem to find out either. My copy is so delicate, that often, turning the pages causes the paper to crack and flake off, so I tend not to use it. I have to be very careful when doing so, and I certainly keep it well away from the actual kitchen area: I am a messy cook- and I’d hate to damage my beautiful little edition.

Penguin Books for Cooks

Until next Monday’s installment of Penguin Books for Cooks: goodbye, and have a wonderful week, whatever you may be doing.


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